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Around the world in 23 days

On-board a National Geographic tour of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Machu Picchu, Easter Island, Samoa and the Great Barrier Reef.

December 18, 2011|By David Lamb, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Surrounded by a rectangle of long corbel-arched galleries, Angkor Wat rises in three astounding tiers to a cluster of five beehive-shaped towers, or prasats.
Surrounded by a rectangle of long corbel-arched galleries, Angkor Wat… (Paul Watson / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from around the world — — Phileas Fogg went around the world in 80 days. I did it in 23. And I bet I visited more amazing sites than he — India's Taj Mahal, Easter Island, Tibet, Cambodia's Angkor Wat, the African plains, to name a few — all without having to endure the tramp steamers, bone-jarring trains and elephants that Fogg used in 1872. I traveled by private jet. The price of a seat, and all that went with it, was $64,950.

The trip was sold by National Geographic Expeditions, which each year offers at least one and sometimes four around-the-world tours by private jet, a leased Boeing 757-200 that is configured with only 77 super-large and dreamily comfortable seats. The journey I made with 70 or so paying passengers in February was a 33,592-mile ride to nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. My reward for being a lecturer was a free trip and a paycheck.

We boarded the plane in Orlando, Fla., for the first leg — a seven-hour flight to Lima, Peru, then on to Machu Picchu. Identified as Explorer in big black letters on its fuselage, it had a two-and-two seat configuration and carried a chef, a doctor and a professional photographer. Everyone had been warned not to expect afternoons at the beach. The ground itinerary, led by local experts for each destination, would be full, seamless and structured with an emphasis on education. There would be no overnight flights.

What we could expect, though, was five-star pampering: hotels where rooms cost more than $900 a night, landing cards that were filled out for us at each destination, quick VIP trips through immigration and customs in some airports (not China's), a free $10 packet of currency for every country so we didn't have to change money for an incidental expense.

Across the aisle from me sat Kyle Kitagawa from Calgary, Canada, who brought his wife and two sons, ages 14 and 11. He retired at 42 in 2001 but still buys and sells companies in the oil industry, including a derelict one that he bought cheaply, revived and sold for $800 million. If he had that kind of money, I asked, why rush around the world? "You go some place for two weeks and if you don't like it, you're stuck," he said. "This trip is a sampler, like a buffet. You can always go back for seconds for the destinations you really like."

John Bisignano of Mechanicsville, Pa., who drove in 202 race-car events in Europe and North America and became a network broadcast personality for the sport, had another take. "The price is exorbitant," he said, "so I asked my brother-in-law, a VP at Goldman Sachs, if I could afford it. He said, 'Do you really want to see these places?' I said yes, definitely. He ran some numbers and said it's a good investment. If you bit off these places in four or five separate trips, it'd probably be more expensive and take a lot longer.' [My wife] and I signed up that day."

We reached Machu Picchu, by way of Lima and Cuzco, on the Hiram Bingham, an elegant old train whose two dining cars and bar car had been reserved for our group. Accompanying us, ensuring that everything ran smoothly, were four representatives of TCS & Starquest, a Seattle travel company retained as a subcontractor to operate the Geographic's around-the-world trips.

During the next six days we moved on to Easter Island, which National Geographic identifies as the world's most isolated inhabited island; Samoa; and Port Douglas, Australia, off the Great Barrier Reef. In Samoa, the lobby of Aggie Grey's Hotel was abuzz when Tim and Rachel Wells emerged from their room after an appointment with a traditional Polynesian tattooist. We all agreed that the large body designs were works of art. "The first hour was OK. The second was quite painful," said Tim, a computer guru in Celebration, Fla.

We were traveling at a fast, steady clip, but life did not seem hurried. We had a rhythm and because each destination was different, the sites did not blur into a foggy montage. Perhaps you get a little weary Monday, then the excitement of heading to a new place Tuesday picks you up. No one spoke of jet lag. The fact that we were traveling with the sun, east to west, helped. So did the absence of overnight flights and the familiar presence of the big blue Explorer awaiting us for each departure.

"Eszter [Foldvary, Starquest's expedition leader] said at the beginning the plane would be like our home," Steve Wertheimer, an asset manager from Greenwich, Conn., recalled. "I said, 'No way; I fly so much I hate planes.' But about a third of the way into the trip, when we boarded I'm thinking, 'Hey, we're home.'"

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